League’s bold new dawn likely a mirage
For the most part, sport is cyclical; reassuring in its repetitiveness, comforting in its dependability.
All Blacks fly north for the spring to win test matches. English cricketers head south to get heir hats handed to them in The Ashes. The Black Sticks come close to achieving something meritorious, but ultimately fall short.
The wheel turns. Not much changes. An occasional surprise result, a standout performance or the emergence of a new star provides the mildly interesting storylines to be be woven into an infinite tapestry of predictability. We know what has been. We know what is coming. It can get a little dull.
Precious little happens that breaks the mould. Radical steps in a new direction often transpire to be but unforeseen stumbles onto a pathway that leads inexorably back to the status quo.
Sadly, the emergence of Tonga as a thrilling, genuine force in international rugby league will most likely be just that. Odds-on, the incredible scenes witnessed in Auckland and Hamilton over the last few weeks will almost certainly be remembered as an example of what the sport could have been, rather than a starting point for what it will become.
Infuriatingly, it would take precious little to keep the ball rolling towards a bold new future. The International Rugby League Federation – the body that ostensibly runs the international game – would need to be empowered to achieve three things: pay parity and the provision of equal facilities for the Pacific Island nations; the scheduling of regular, meaningful fixtures; and the power to compel clubs to release players for international duty.
That’s all it would take. Almost instantly, Samoa and Fiji would join Tonga as genuine world class teams. Papua New Guinea would follow soon enough. Compelling new rivalries would emerge. The international game would have the diversity it has forever lacked.
Crushingly, it won’t happen. The game’s insular, Aussie-centric powerbase will see to that. The memories of the wild, joyous, jubilant scenes of Waikato Stadium will fade. The NRL season will kick off and the great bogeyman that is Origin will be just around the corner.
As they always do, league’s power brokers will turn their gazes to their navels, if not further inwards. Proof of that came from the mouth of Wayne Bennett only moments after his England team had participated in one of the great international matches of all time against Tonga at a heaving Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday night.
“There should be a three-year stand down,” Bennett said when asked what should be done about eligibility rules that allowed Jason Taumolo, David Fusitua and Manu Ma’u to defect from New Zealand and Andrew Fifita to turn his back on Australia.
“Those sort of comments, I find really funny when you look at the disparity in the benefits you get to play for a Tier 1 nation.
Impossibly, it seemed totally lost on Bennett that it was the chaos created by the loosening of eligibility rules that had created the incredible occasion of which he’d just been a part.
Perhaps Bennett remains a member of the camp that believes allowing players to follow the whims of their hearts when choosing which nation to play for in any given test match fatally undermines the integrity of those contests?
That was a barely defensible position before this world cup. But anyone still arguing that preserving the sport’s integrity through rigid eligibility rules is a greater good than uplifting the island nations is badly out of touch.
The change to eligibility rules for this world cup was designed to ensure that the vast majority of the game’s best players had a pathway to compete in the tournament. Those who missed out on selection for the Kiwis and Kangaroos would be able to bolster Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, helping to avoid mismatches.
It was never envisaged that players selected for Tier 1 nations would choose instead to play for a Tier 2 nation – and that those nations would rise up and slay dragons.
No one saw the Taumalolo rebellion coming. It was an unintended consequence. The formula that made the New Zealand side of the world cup a staggering success – despite the host nation being utterly dreadful - was discovered purely by accident.
A former Kangaroos test winger, Bennett has always been considered a huge proponent of the international game. Yet, there he was, calling for progress to be killed stone dead while the stands still shook with Tongans who sang and danced as they grieved.
His opposite, Tongan coach Kristian Woolf, didn’t appear at all surprised Bennett was agitating to safeguard the hegemony of the existing elite.
“What that does, any of those sort of decisions, is protect the Tier 1 nations,” Woolf said of the proposed three-year stand down.
“Those sort of comments, I find really funny when you look at the disparity in the benefits you get to play for a Tier 1 nation. We can’t just gear everything in their favour so that it always stays that way.
“They continue to be strong and your Tier 2 nations can’t get an opportunity. If you are going to make those sort of decisions, then make everything equal. Then we’ll genuinely see who people want to play for.”
The head coach of the Townsville Blackhawks in his day job, Woolf is accustomed to scrapping away in the sport’s lower echelons for the crumbs that filter down from the NRL. Perhaps it is because he exists outside the NRL tent that he can see what a lifetime insider like Bennett clearly can’t.
“There needs to be some thought put into in from the (IRLF) and the NRL as to how we keep this momentum going,” Woolf said. “We need to look at ways this team can play other Tier 1 nations. The way we continue to progress is by playing more footy, and being looked after a bit better so we can play more footy. [That way] we can attract blokes to play for Tonga.
“I think we’ve really started something. I think it is the beginning of something that really takes Tonga forward in terms of rugby league, and as a nation.”
He might be right. But, sadly, you wouldn’t bet on it. Times may change but, for the most part, the song remains the same.